Thursday, May 29, 2014

Power


Over a period of about a week last fall, I made two different students cry. Oddly enough, their tears factored into my decision to retire this spring.  First, I had a sense that students had entirely new expectations about their marks in class, and although I told all of my classes that their marks were best understood as information rather than summary judgements of their characters and abilities, their disappointment and their hurt feelings--which were so alarmingly personal--contributed to my sense that I was out of sync with the new generation.  But also, I didn't want to make people cry.  Every time I wrote comments on essays, I began my remarks by noting what my students had done well. (Okay, there were a couple of notable exceptions. But these students didn't turn up in my office crying:  I suspect they truly didn't care.)  In an "average" batch of essays, being precise about what each student has done well can be exhausting.  I was exhausted by the power I had over their self-concepts.

I rediscovered a different kind of power during our gloomy spring.  On one of those rainy weekends, Bill spent his time at an informal conference in Saskatoon, driving home in the rain.  I knew that he would be revived by the smell of spices in the house, so I baked a spice cake that would come out of the oven about half an hour before he got home. The smell of spices would still be in the air, but the cake would be cool enough to eat. The next weekend, I needed to engineer a similar rescue. We'd had a cold, rainy week, and that weather continued on Friday. Veronica's energy is profoundly influenced by the weather, so I planned accordingly. Again, something spicy was needed, so I made a Moroccan chicken stew. Our salads had raspberries and goat's cheese in them. This was followed by small clusters of macadamia nuts enrobed in bittersweet chocolate (from the South Beach "diet" cookbook). Then time knitting in front of the fire. 

The conversation I remember with my mother that I wrote about last week is one facet of this desire to give pleasure:  there is a moral side to it.  It makes the world a different place. It creates joy; when pleasure is given freely, with no expectation of a quid pro quo, it changes the recipients' sense of how the world works.  If only momentarily, we are living in the economy of the gift.  If the pleasure comes with conversation or time for reflection, that sense of being pleasured, being cared for, having one's needs understood and met, might have a little time to ripple out into our lives for a little space. Alice Waters, chef and teacher, understands this role of generosity fully.  It is doubtless behind her creation of "The Edible Schoolyard" at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley California, where students work in the organic garden and in the kitchens that make their lunches, learning about the pleasures of taste and health.  In her most recent cookbook, In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn by Heart (2007), Waters writes "Our full humanity is contingent on our hospitality; we can be complete only when we are giving something away; when we sit at the table and pass the peas to the person next to us we see that person in a whole new way."

If giving pleasure can be moral, if it can work its way into the networks around us, what is its relationship to power?  Most of the conventional ways we think about power would suggests that such gifts are the antithesis of power.

One of the pleasure of summer reading--particularly when there isn't a corner of your mind that is already worrying about shaping your fall classes--is that you can wander.  My wanderings have taken me as far as W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, and philosopher Joseph Heath's Enlightenment 2.0:  Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy, and Our Lives.  (I'm in the early pages still;  you will doubtless hear more about this timely book.) In Sebald's essay, "Air War and Literature," he attempts to understand both the way the relentless bombing of civilian targets in Germany toward the end of World War Two was represented in literature, as well as the ways the Germans have avoided representation of that time.  This project involves him in an attempt to understand the Allies' motives.  To this end, he quotes Churchill's sense "that there was now, as he put it, a higher poetic justice at work and 'that those who have loosed these horrors upon mankind will now in their homes and persons feel the shattering strokes of just retribution'" (Heath 19).  These feelings, Heath goes on to observe, are "in perfect sympathy with the innermost principle of every war, which is to aim for as wholesale an annihilation of the enemy with his dwellings, his history, and his natural environment as can possibly be achieved.  Elias Canetti has linked the fascination of power in its purest form to the growing number of its accumulated victims" (Heath 19).  So there is one form of power:  destruction of the other.  The kidnapping of schoolgirls and the conflict Putin has stirred up between ethic Russians and Ukrainians.  

In the early stages of Enlightenment 2.0, Heath is considering how the current political climate is presented to us by the media and by politics' practitioners. Heath navigates by two reference points:  Stephen Colbert's invention of the expression "truthiness" in 2005, and a 1985 essay "On Bullshit" written by philosopher Harry Frankfurt that was suddenly catapulted into popularity, also in 2005.  "Truthiness" refers not to whether something is true, but to whether it feels true or seems to conform to the perceptions of common sense. Truthiness is the rhetoric of ideology:  It doesn't matter whether something accords with the facts; what matters is whether it will appeal to the base and reflect the speaker's (largely unexamined) view of the world.  When Frankfurt wrote about bullshit, he stipulated that the word applied to statements that were not only untrue, but to statements that neither the speaker nor the listener were pretending were true.  My favourite bullshit:  "Your call is important to us."  Then why have I been on hold for 15 minutes? For Heath, then, in the age when we are bombarded by messages, having the resources to tell the public, over and over again, that something patently false is true amounts to power.  Power lies in rhetoric. 

These forms of power seem to me not only brutal, unthinking, and unethical--for what do we do to a whole society when we appeal to truthiness for our political decisions--but sad.  Where is the self in all this?  What sense of self is so fragile that it depends on destroying those with a different sense of self?  What kind of self is so unreflective that it does not detect the falsity of truthiness?  To what extent does that lack of reflection play a significant role in that person's experience of other people?

It seems to me that I have much more real power in my daily life, power to decide, to choose how I will see the world.  When I take joy in the changes spring has brought, watching a pair of goldfinches nuzzle at the bird feeder or delighting in an elm seed dropped right into the spine of Haruki Marukami's Norwegian Wood, which I was reading out on the front steps last night so I could listen to the wind in the pine trees, in some respects I seem to have so much more power.  I have to be honest about the limitations of this perception, however:  who owns the book store where I bough Marukami's book?  Who paves the city street in front of my house?  

I wonder how many people attended last Saturday's Cathedral Arts Festival? For there, we saw power of an entirely different kind: power to create, make, craft, fashion; power in joyfulness, in community.  It intrigued me to see so many organizations sharing space on the street, from the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild to Amnesty International.  Clearly they think power also happens here.  There's doubtless power in the story of the "young" son who bought fries in the middle of the morning for his father, who waited at the margins.

I have no real answers about power.  These thoughts have raised as many questions for me as they have given me an opportunity to think about nontraditional ways of thinking about power.  So let me close with a poem by Wendell Berry that was posted on Garrison Keillor's Writers' Almanac:



The Want of Peace

All goes back to the earth,
and so I do not desire
pride of excess or power,
but the contentments made
by men who have had little:
the fisherman's silence
receiving the river's grace,
the gardner's musing on rows.

I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.

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